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Vacant v. Blighted: Buildings as Assets

By Emilie Evans – Michigan Historic Preservation Network

A prevalent narrative in Detroit is that all 80,000 of the city’s reported vacant and blighted structures should be taken down.  While not every building can or should be saved, it is important to remember that not everything that is vacant is blighted.

Blight is a pervasive word used in the not-too-distant past to justify the wholesale clearance of tens of thousands of properties across cities in the U.S. through Urban Renewal. Today, blighted properties in Detroit are those considered to be “open, vacant, or dangerous.” The importance of the distinction between vacant and blighted lies in seeing buildings as opportunities and not just liabilities.

We all want to raise property values, stabilize blocks, and generate economic growth, but we can’t simply demolish our way there. Rehabilitation and reinvestment in historic and older properties is proven to benefit neighborhoods and residents. In Cleveland, property owners who received loans to improve their historic buildings saw greater increases in their property’s value over time than those who didn’t – and the higher appreciation rates spilled over into neighboring real estate as well. Rehabilitation and preservation are proven tools to retain unique and interesting spaces that attract residents and businesses; maintain desired density and walkability; and provide a sense of place and identity via historic spaces.

Many of Detroit’s 80,000 vacant buildings are likely historic and, as a general rule of thumb, any building 50 years or older is considered historic and potentially eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. But just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s historic and, at the same time, historic does not always have to connote a building designed by a famous architect (though we should be proud to have those too). Historic can mean any building – small or large, modest or ornate – that contributes to community identity, that reflects neighborhood character, or that played an important cultural role.

There are buildings in neighborhoods throughout the city that should be considered within a strategic demolition or deconstruction framework, but two other forms of blight elimination are key to the revitalization of Detroit’s neighborhoods: rehabilitation and secure mothballing. Bringing strategic buildings back online through rehabilitation eradicates vacancy, raises property values, and brings investment, residents, and jobs directly to the city and its neighborhoods. When rehabilitation isn’t an option for a building in sound condition, stabilizing and protecting it by investing in securely mothballing it can prevent the building from deteriorating into a hazardous structure until the opportunity to rehabilitate arises.

It is critical at this important juncture in Detroit’s future to think long-term. With each building taken down, we sever a tie to the neighborhood and its community and remove any opportunity for the building to contribute back to that block. In many cases a building’s removal may be the best thing for the block, as demolition can lead to opportunities for appropriate infill development as well as community parks and gardens. However, while rehabilitation and reinvestment in existing buildings may have a larger up-front cost as opposed to demolition, it can result in greater long-lasting benefits for the city and its residents.

Stabilizing our neighborhoods and city by addressing blighted properties is going to require the balanced use of multiple tools – from demolition and deconstruction to rehabilitation and mothballing. Thinking and acting with a holistic, long-term plan is critical to moving the city forward while celebrating its past.

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